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(ARCHIVE) VOL. XXII No. 14, November 1-15, 2012
Enjoying life with Nana
By A Staff Reporter

K.S. Narayanan, who passed away recently, was a person who enjoyed company, enjoyed storytelling, and enjoyed life – with a broad smile always in place. These excerpts from his memoirs, Friendships and Flashbacks, reflect that life.

K.S . Narayanan, Chairman-Emeritus of the Sanmar Group – KSN as he was known in corporate circles, and as Nana to friends – came from a lineage of Tirunelveli bankers. He joined his father's Indo Commercial Bank in 1936. A co-appointee was T.S. Narayanaswami (TSN). It was to be the beginning of a lasting friendship that was to see the spawning of several enterprises in future.

In 1947, with the group's interests in cement becoming manifest, he co-founded India Cements, along with TSN. Chemplast (now a constituent of the Sanmar Group) came about in 1965. WS Industries (of which KSN was Chairman till the 1990s) was also founded around that time. The sudden passing away of TSN in 1968 was a setback, but KSN weathered the crisis, his passion for new enterprises and managing them continuing unabated. He retired at the age of 60 in 1980, but retained a keen interest in corporate affairs almost till the very end.

In private life, KSN was married to Madhuram who passed away in 1973. They had two sons – N. Sankar and N. Kumar.

KSN was a man known for his positive attitude to life, his active interest in sports and his vast circle of friends. His friends, he often said, were made for life and the only capital he had after years in business.

In 2001, KSN narrated the story of his life till then to Srividya Natarajan. This was published as Friendships and Flashbacks. More than an (auto) biography of a captain of industry, it is a warm-hearted and humorous chronicle of life in South Indian industry and the city of Madras. We bring you excerpts:

Seen at the Indo Commercial Bank's Vizianagaram branch: K.S. Narayanan and T.S. Narayanaswami at the extreme left and right respectively.

KSN moved to Madras in the 1930s, joining the Hindu High School, Triplicane.

My own best moments from this time were of riding to school on a Humber bicycle that had been bought for the fabulous sum of Rs. 200 (ordinary bicycles in those days cost around Rs.25). I had entertained hopes of roaring about on a motorcycle, but my father made it clear that I had no business wanting one at the age of fifteen. I was given, instead, this paragon among bicycles, this construction of gears and gadgetry that became my pride and joy. It even, for a while, replaced the joys of riding the trams up and down Madras. It was particularly fascinating to me that at the end of a run the driver would simply move to the other end of the tram, so nothing had to be turned around.

My family didn't seem to mind the idea of my driving a car before I was of an age to take my driving licence, and so I went about in a new model Ford when I was not yet seventeen. This model had a 'double horn,' an innovation that the police frowned upon, since it sounded as if there were two cars instead of one and it was believed that this could cause accidents. Inevitably, one morning, as I was parp-parping my way through George Town, an Inspector of Police stopped me and hauled me off to the Commissioner's Office in Egmore.

The Assistant Commissioner of Police, an Englishman, looked at me up and down, noting, no doubt, my obviously beardless youthfulness. "Have you a licence, young man?" he asked, insinuatingly. No, I admitted, I was deplorably licenceless. He had just begun to lecture me about my culpability on various grounds, when we heard a double horn at the gate of the Commissioner's Office. We both stared. "Are you going to prosecute that man too?" I asked hopefully. "He has the same horn." The Inspector turned hurriedly from the window and told me I had better shut up. The door opened, and the Commissioner himself came in: the owner of that car, the possessor of one of only two double horns in all of Madras!

After this particular epiphany, the ACP's mirth at the whole situation bubbled up through his official anger with me, and instead of the rebuke he was planning he offered me a reprieve. "Take him out, and see if he can drive," he told the Inspector, who immediately began to look murderous. When I was reported fit to handle a vehicle, the ACP himself filled out a licence application, letting his pen wander vaguely and forgetfully past the column that asked for my age. He even phoned my father: "Don't worry that your son is late coming home, he'll be back soon." That was how I came back to my village to become something of a celebrity among my mates, a man of parts, a man – of sixteen summers, admittedly – but with a driving licence!

In 1939, KSN was asked to manage Nanco Inks, a business the family had acquired just then. KSN refers to the role played in the acquisition by T.R.V. Sastri, this being T.R. Venkatarama Sastri, the legal luminary. The Anna referred to in this passage was S.N.N. Sankaralinga Iyer, KSN's father. T. Sadasivam is of course M.S. Subbulakshmi's husband and well-known founder of Kalki magazine. The Abboy referred to is T.S. Narayanaswami.

In a huge property on what was then Guindy Road (now Sardar Patel Road), a High Court officer built a shed and installed some newly bought machinery, to give his son a start in life. The son was a chemist, with some knowledge of inks, and had wanted to try his hand at running a printing ink factory. Friends of the official – lawyers all – helped finance the outfit.

The unit was called Vishakan Printing Ink Works and, by 1938, it was floundering for want of fresh capital.

A legal man called T.R.V. Shastri, who was a friend of my father, mentioned this factory's difficulties to Anna. This happened at a time when Anna was looking for a chance to break the banking mould. He called me over and said, "Nana, I think someone should take over this ink factory and make a success of it."

I was delighted to comply. We bought the entire unit, with its three ink-grinding 'mills', machines made by Torrance of the U.K., and retained the original owner's son as our chemist. We also hired one more chemist. The factory was now called Nanco Printing Inks. This was a version of "Nana and Co." that I was to use for more than one enterprise I was involved with. It made sense in those days to give a company a name that was not too unmistakably 'Indian'.

Almost immediately after we took it over, the ink factory began its climb out of the red. What we needed now was a marketing boost, a buyer who would place large orders.

The large orders at this time were placed mainly by the daily newspapers; in Madras, that meant The Hindu and The Indian Express. They would not take us seriously, I think, because there was a technical problem with our ink, which cropped up only when it was applied to the fast-spinning rollers of the big presses that ground out the dailies. As the rollers whipped around, a cloud of black particles flew up from them, making a sort of sooty miasma in the room and coating the technicians until they were black in the face.

The finest break for Nanco Inks came when T. Sadasivam of the Tamil magazine Kalki placed an order. Kalki was then struggling with teething problems of its own and was not above applying for its raw material to a small-time local supplier. Its rollers were the smaller, slower kind, for which our inks held no terrors. The only small catch was that Kalki's management was also not inclined to give us any time to meet the order: Sadasivam wanted the ink the same night as the order was placed, so that he could run off the next day's magazine.

The Nanco Inks factory was closed for the day by the time the order was confirmed, both workers and chemists snug in their homes and inaccessible (cell-phones: oh, the difference they make!). In this kind of crisis, there was only one person to turn to: rock-solid Abboy, who could turn his hand to anything. It was a stroke of luck that he was in Madras. I roused him out of his evening reverie, and hauled him off to the factory: he and the driver of our car were the only forces I could muster.

Working in frantic haste, the three of us fed the raw materials into the machine and waited for the rollers to grind the ink to the required fineness. Then we spooned the ink off the rollers into a container and packed it off to the Kalki office in Egmore before retiring to bed, sweaty and begrimed but feeling that we had endeared ourselves to Kalki's owners forever and a day. Abboy was the kind of person who got a great kick out of that kind of situation. As a matter of fact, Kalki became one of Nanco's most loyal clients after this incident, and remained a client for many years.

On the initial years of WS Industries and its early crisis consequent to the rupee devaluation of 1966: The CS Loganatha Mudaliar referred to here was a cement magnate of those years. He was better known as the partner of JH Tarapore in several building contracts.

Among the companies that floundered was W.S. Insulators of India, another collaborative effort between a giant U.S. corporation – Westinghouse – and Indian entrepreneurs, in the manufacture of electrical goods. Abboy had been one of the prime movers and Loganatha Mudaliar was started off as Chairman. The factory had opened in Porur, near Madras, in 1966.

W.S.'s main client was the Electricity Department, and any one who has dealt with any arm of the PWD knows that extending credit is part of the game. When Abboy's sudden passing away in February 1968 left me holding this baby, I discovered that there wasn't even enough money in the kitty to pay the workers that month. I turned to the Finance Secretary, but he shook me off, claiming helplessness. M.G. Balasubramaniam, a man I numbered among my friends, was the Industries Secretary, and R. Tirumalai was the PWD Secretary in the Tamil Nadu Government at the time. When they learnt of my plight they agreed to help: they felt that the PWD was at fault, and ought to pay its arrears. M.G. Balasubramaniam and Tirumalai marched into the Finance Secretary's office with me and delivered their ultimatum:

"If the government can't give W.S. Insulators an advance, the Electricity Department will pay their bills right now. But then the Electricity Department won't be able to pay any salaries to its own workers this month!"

The crisis passed. The Finance Secretary coughed up from the Government's funds, and both W.S. and the PWD salaries were paid. For the running of the company, I had to borrow from the ICICI against my personal guarantee. On the strength of that, among other things, I eventually became Chairman of W.S. Insulators after Loganatha Mudaliar's demise, and retired after many years as Chairman-Emeritus.

(To be concluded)

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In this Issue

'Save this landmark building'
Why is our city 'Sink'ara Chennai?
For Metro Rail success a ring line is needed
Enjoying life with Nana
The national treasure that was M. Krishnan
A Vijayanagara-Chennai connection
'Munro' arrives in Madras
We regret...

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan


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